Mar 22, 2016

Tips & Tools: Getting Handy with a Handi

Introducing the magnificent pot of Mughal fame: the handi!

Originally made of clay the handi is a round pot with no handles, a narrow neck, curved sides, and is usually thicker on the bottom to distribute heat evenly. The handi is the piece of cookware essential to the "dum" or "dumpukht" style of cooking so beloved by the Mughals. "Dum" means steam or breath and "puhkt" means to choke. In dumpukht cooking food would be partially cooked then placed in the handi with it's lid sealed airtight with a paste of flour and water. The sealed handi would then be placed on the dying embers of the cooking fire to slowly simmer overnight. Steam would form inside the handi which would then condense and drip down the curved sides. Thus the food contained within would basted in it's own juices. Dumpuhkt is the culinary method used in making such famed Mughal style dishes such as biryanis, tahari, and Mutton Lazeez. One of the most popular dishes of Kashmir called "Dum Aloo" consists of baby potatoes slow cooked dumpukht style with a spicy sauce.

This is a decorative clay handi available for sale at a tourist site in Agra. You can see the saucer-like lid on the narrow necked round pot that is typical of early handis.

Here is a modern day replication of dumpukht style cooking.  A biryani is being cooked in a clay handi atop a gas burner. The saucer-like lid has been sealed with a paste of water and flour to keep steam from escaping. As this sealed handi is not upon dying embers but rather a direct gas flame a metal tawa or plate has been placed under it to disperse the heat.

Nowadays you can even buy decorative handis to serve your meal in like this piece of gorgeous tableware. A small handi is called a "handiya."

You can also get pressure cookers in the shape of a handi. I doubt whether a pressure cooker could truly replicate slow cooking in an earthenware pot over coals, but there you go.

Now let's stroll on over to Delhi near the Jama Masjid mosque to see the handi in action. This is Karim's restaurant, it lies on one of the winding, narrow, and dimly lit paths in the souk-like markets around the Jama Masjid mosque. Karim's is quite famous and has been in business for over 100 years. Karim's owners are direct descendants of chefs of the Mughal court. The original Mughal cooking techniques and recipes have been passed down through the family here. At some point handis ceased being made in clay and nickel plated beaten copper became the preferred material of choice for manufacture.

This is how a Mughal chef would cook, sitting cross legged upon a flat platform surrounded by braziers topped with handis. The handis can be tilted to keep steam in and allow easy access to  the seated chef or servers. Typically foods would be first partially cooked like this in the handis, the lid would be then sealed with a flour and water paste, and the handi would be placed over low heat to simmer for hours.

Here you can see the delicious contents of the handis. There's a biryani on the right and some sort of mutton dish in the left. See how tilting the handis keeps allows the steam to condense and roll back down the side rather than just escaping.

Your meal at Karim's will be simply served on 1950's looking stoneware in a charmingly unpretentious manner. A complimentary relish plate of sliced raw onions, limes, and sliced raw daikon radish will always accompany your dining experience. A choice of different naan or rice areon offer too, in this case we've chosen those gorgeous fluffy naans. It's quite inexpensive and geared toward the working class despite the royal cuisine being served. I like that, the food is what the focus is on here. Surprisingly to me, the Mughal food served at the little restaurants owned by descendants of Mughal chefs isn't that highly spiced. The emphasis is on the meat- be it mutton cooked in it's own juices or a biryani cooked with meat stock. One dish we ordered once was quite unusual, I believe it was called "Shahi Tamur" which means "Royal Dates." It consisted of dates stewed in a creamy white savory sauce with a lot of ground coriander, a bit of cumin, and green chilis. Mixing sweet with savory would be typical of the early Mughal era.

Here is a gentleman in typical Islamic attire enjoying the view of the Jama Masjid mosque from a nearby restaurant. The mosque was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan of rosy red sandstone with carved white marble inlays and was completed in 1656. It can accommodate 25,000 worshippers, has two 130 foot high minarets, and three white marble domes. The inside is even more spectacularly ornamented with more inlaid marble and carved semi precious stones throughout.

I think the closest thing to a handi that would be practical for modern cooks would be an electric slow cooker or crock pot. You could certainly seal the lid with a flour and water paste to get the same dumpukht effect. If I lived someplace where I had twenty four hour electricity I'd certainly have one. I've never seen a slow cooker or crock pot in India or Nepal, but then twenty four electricity is a rarity in Nepal and India also.

That concludes my discussion of the handi and dumpukht cooking.
Calmly currying on,


  1. I 've seen variety pots selling in our local Indian Grocery shop,never paid much of attention .Thanks for the article,now I will be able to get some.Hope

    1. Hi Hope,
      What are "variety" pots? Thank you for your comment,

  2. Bibi,I don't quite remember all pots in the shop.Some copper handis for sure and some made from clay maybe with the handles,deep fraying pans few sizes,spice containers whole sets(I got one and keep my jewellery inside in case thief decide to visit me)
    I think I will pay them visit very soon,because my neighbour is still in the hospital and shop sell Insulated Food Containers.Would be very good to take some food to him and done in joyful way.

  3. Hi Hope,
    The insulated tiffins with the stainless steel compartments are really nice. They make carrying rice, dal, curry, whatever super easy & they really do keep the food warm.

  4. What beautiful photos - I really enjoyed seeing the ones of Karim's, your write-up makes me want to dash there (thousands of miles!) and eat. And the mosque is stunning.

    We used an enamelled Polish pot for our biryani which, completely coincidentally, has a handi sort of shape.

    (Mmm, biryani...)

    1. Hi Mim,
      Thank you! The Jama Masjid is really just as spectacular as the Taj Mahal. It is stadium sized huge and the intricacy of the stonework is just incredible. Every surface is ornamented. What is even more incredible is the amount of neglect it has withstood to this day. It is still a working mosque today.

  5. Aha, but also "what...?", for I've seen a handi offered on the shelf at a local Goodwill as a saucer for pillar candles.

    Thanks for the glimpse of Karim's and their menu. The mention of daikon is intriguing! One usually thinks of it in connection with Japanese lunch boxes.

    1. Hi Beth,
      Well I'm sure Goodwill & most Americans wouldn't know what a handi was nor what to do with it.
      You know now that I look at that photo that wasn't daikon radish it was cucumber slices! When cukes get difficult to find they'll often put daikon on that "nimbu pyaaz" plate, but that photo was taken in the summer. I remember the heat, flies, & lack of AC distinctly. Oh well.


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